New Worlds: Buying and Selling Spouses

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When marriage is more of an economic transaction between families than a union of two people for reasons of personal attachment, it isn’t at all surprising that money gets involved.

There’s good reason for this. Taking a new person into your household entails new expenses; conversely, the household losing that person loses the benefits of their labor. How that ledger gets balanced — who ends up being seen as needing compensation for the shift — varies depending on place and time.

The version most of you have probably heard of is the dowry: wealth given by the bride’s family to the groom or the groom’s family as part of the marriage deal. It provides endless fodder for romance novelists writing historical tales, because much like college in the United States nowadays, it was a big expense, and one families had to plan for early if they wanted to handle it right.

One of the ways to view a dowry’s function is that it “purchases” a husband for the daughter, and as with anything else, the more money you have, the better a product you can buy. You can also cast dowry in modern terms as the startup fund for a household — especially when you consider the different forms it might take. Money is one possibility, but household goods like linens or furniture are another; assembling your trousseau was a very practical thing once upon a time (and still is in some places), and a girl who could show off excellent needlework skills was more attractive than one who couldn’t sew to save her life. And then, of course, there’s land: the dowry of a royal bride might include entire cities or provinces.

Dowry might also be a form of inheritance for the bride, and therefore of financial insurance — but how well that works out depends on the situation. If the bride retains control of her dowry, that’s one thing, but if the groom or his family controls it, then it’s all too easy for a feckless husband to fritter it all away. In theory a husband is often liable for returning the dowry to the bride’s family if he sets her aside or their marriage is otherwise ended, but historical records are full of lawsuits over the failure to do so.

But that’s only one approach to the marriage transaction. The inverse of dowry is bride price or bridewealth: the groom or his family transferring property or wealth to the bride’s family. Sometimes this is again a form of financial security for the bride, but in other situations it’s very much not, depending on whether her family is expected to return the bride price in the event of the marriage failing. It also theoretically demonstrates the husband’s ability to support a wife.

Then there’s dower — which, despite the similarity of sound, is not the same thing as dowry. It’s more akin to bride price, in that it’s a payment made by the groom, but in this case it goes directly to the bride herself, rather than to her family (though it may be held in trust in some fashion). This takes a bunch of different forms, and the legal intricacies are too much to get into here, but it’s generally based on the idea that the wife depends on her husband for financial support, and if he dies or divorces her, she’ll need something to keep her afloat.

You might think that pre-nuptial agreements are a modern thing, and the province of rich people who expect to have ugly divorces a few years down the road. In fact they’re quite old and often quite necessary, even for people who don’t have much in the way of property. As with any type of legal transaction, it’s better for all involved if the terms of the deal are laid out unambiguously, and documented for future reference. In Judaism there is the ketubah; Islam also has marriage contracts. Other societies may have written documents specifying the dowry, bride price, dower, or other financial arrangements, especially in the event of one spouse’s decease — at which point they intersect with the broader category of wills.

How these things fit into their respective societies is a complex question, and the details are a matter of debate among anthropologists. Are dowries more common in cultures where capital is the primary source of wealth, and bride prices in cultures where that honor goes to labor? Are one or both of these demeaning to women, or a way of providing for them and their future? What significance can you read into the form the gift takes, be it money or land or goods? What factors cause the expected gift to rise or fall in value?

It’s a little easier to talk about the effects of such things. Being required to pay money up front before you can get married means that people without much (relative to their social class) are going to have a harder time getting married. (And don’t think that shipping your spare daughters off to become nuns will solve the problem: some convents required a dowry, too, before they would take in a new novice.) This leads to people marrying later, or borrowing from their relatives to raise the necessary sum, or even engaging in crime — stealing cattle, for example, if you’re expected to pay bride price in the form of a herd. In Europe, one of the pious and charitable things you could do was to fund dowries for girls with none. And the dower-style terms of a ketubah were in part a workaround for the problem of an up-front sum, letting a husband essentially promise money later, when he’s more likely to have financial security, rather than having to deliver it at the outset.

Such things have mostly fallen by the wayside in the United States and other Western countries, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely gone. Remember me saying that a bride’s trousseau was material she brought into the marriage, for the setting up of a new household? Now think about wedding registries, which can fill the same practical function. And think about the custom, still widespread today, of the bride’s family paying for the wedding and reception. There’s expense associated with marriage — quite a lot of it, if you let the wedding-industrial complex talk you into all the optional bells and whistles — and we still have to answer the question of how to pay for it today. It’s just the priorities and details that have changed.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Buying and Selling Spouses — 23 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Buying and Selling Spouses - Swan Tower

  2. There’s an entire thing in China these days about how a girl won’t even date you unless you have a car. Marriage is not to be contemplated unless the man can afford a condo or house. There’s a significant gender imbalance which means dearth of marriageable women in China at the moment, and so the female gets to do the picking. What this means is that poor men go unwed, or are forced to import a bride from some less-fortunate polity like Vietnam.

    • I would say “unforeseen consequences,” but in fact these are very foreseeable. Take a patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal society. Tell them they can have only one kid each, or in some cases two if the first was a girl. Of course people will take steps to make sure they wind up with the type of kid who will stay around and take care of them in their old age, rather than the type who will grow up and leave and take care of their in-laws in their old age. Run that for long enough, and you end up with a sex gap, as you said, which means that when it comes to acquiring a husband, it’s a buyer’s market. And since it’s still in many cases true, even here in the U.S., that marriage is more beneficial to men than it is to women . . . then yeah, you wind up with the women having the chance to be very choosy. And then you get knock-on effects from there, whether that’s foreign-born brides or an uptick in crime or what have you.

      • You had real fun in China earlier when you had an unbalanced sex ratio, bride prices, and government heavily pushing the ideal of the chaste widow who never remarried after her husband’s death, even if she had been a child bride. In real life, unless she had a son, she was almost certain to be sold enough to a third family.

        • “You can never remarry” under those conditions is a recipe for utter disaster, yeah. To the point where polyandry starts to look like the only feasible solution. 😛

  3. There are _unverified_ reports coming out of India that a groom’s family is in the business of collecting dowries. They find a suitable girl for their son to marry. They collect the dowry. Then 2 years down the road, bride has a fatal “accident”. Time to find a new bride. Lather rinse repeat.

    Two years is about long enough for the girl to produce a son.

    How they get away with it I do not know. How a family can sell their daughter to a family that has already gone through 2 or 3 wives I do not know.

    • It isn’t impossible for something like that to happen . . . but I’ll admit I’m skeptical about anyone getting away with doing so repeatedly. The “Bluebeard” folktale notwithstanding, serial wife murder on a predictable schedule would attract a lot of suspicion.

      On the other hand, the general idea that a man might kill his wife in order to keep her dowry and marry again? As a one-off thing, that is all too possible.

      • It’s more than a one-off, with more than 10.000 women per year dying from this type of violence (dowry death, wife burning) in the India, Pakistan and Bangladesh area. It’s often (thinly) disguised as a suicide (the wife {supposedly} hanging herself after threats and torture from her husband and/or inlaws) or as a kitchen accident resulting from cooking over open flame in easily-flammable saris (hence the prevalence of wife-burning).
        According to the documentary I saw it was done to one of the interviewees who survived such an attack when the kitchen appliances which the wife brought in as her dowry needed to be replaced – they said that was a fairly common reason for such attacks.

        • It was, from what I remember, more common when the wife had married “up”, into a family with a (slightly) better socio-economic status than her birth family. That way the wife’s birth family would be powerless to protest her death from an “accident” and make it stick against the more powerful family, especially in more isolated rural areas and small towns.
          Then the next poor father of daughters would get an opportunity to buy his daughter a step up on the socio-economic ladder for the maximum he could afford… after all, the poor widower would be nearly inconsolable about the tragic accident, but when women are careless cooking on open flame such things happen; or when a poor woman can’t handle the pressure from her newly elevated status and commits suicide you can’t really blame her husband, and of course your daughter wouldn’t be that weak or careless, and just look at the opportunity she’d be given to rise in status….
          After two dead young wives people would certainly start to doubt and whisper, but a more powerful family could still pressure a poor family into giving up a daughter and trying to safeguard her as best they can by paying more for a dowry than they can really afford (which would also help to keep a rising poor family both poor and powerless).

        • “One-off” in the sense that any given husband might kill his wife, but is increasingly unlikely to get away with doing so repeatedly — not in the sense that it only happens once across the whole population. Even with suicide or accidental death as the ostensible cause, serial murder of that sort tends to attract attention. Again, I’m not saying that it can’t happen: it can and probably has. But I tend to view with a dose of skepticism anything that says it happens frequently, because such tales are often tinged with an overtone of “look at how barbaric things are in this foreign country where wives get murdered all the time and nobody really cares.”

  4. Clause #7 of the Magna Carta provides that a widow shall have the return of her marriage portion and inheritance without delay upon the death of her husband.

    This presumes that the dowry has been used to purchase land or other valuables, or is in the form of land and grist mills and livestock etc. and remains intact.

    • AND — her getting it takes precedence over all other debts.

      Under later English law a widower got all of his wife’s estate. A widow got a third of the assets of her husband’s estate. Which one worked out better was a matter of circumstance.

  5. Soviet Union had Eastern Europeans with pretty much modern Western ideas on marriage, and feudal Muslims ready to pay a hundred sheep for the blonde girl (they also paid a hundred sheep to get an university degree for their barely literate son). Intermarriages were rare, however, officially it was all a big happy family.

    Oh, and several of my grandaunts worked hard on their trousseaus but never married (WWII plus Stalin meant a serious case of where have all the young men gone). Guess who inherited all that slightly yellowed linen. At least they taught me to sew, too.

    • WWII plus Stalin meant a serious case of where have all the young men gone

      I was just looking at sex ratios worldwide, and populations in many places skew quite female-heavy as you get to that top age group. Women’s life expectancy in general tends to be a bit longer than men’s, but when you add in a massive globe-spanning war that took out more young men than any other demographic group . . . and then, in the case of the Soviet Union, add Stalin. I’m pretty sure Russia leads the pack for having a ratio tilted toward women.

      • This also extends to widows having to make shift to live. When I was a student in Austria in 1972, everywhere you turned there were widows of the war earning meager livings cleaning public restrooms, running tiny Tabacs, cleaning streets, tending the front doors of apartment buildings, and of course in the regular service industries.

        • In the USSR the widows of Soviet Army heroes had plenty of state funding and status.

          The widows of all the wrong armies were lucky to get a cleaning job.

          And then there were women waiting for their husbands or boyfriends to get released from Siberia. Many did actually return, it just happened after their best reproductive years were over or with a Siberian wife and three kids in tow.

          In my generation, born 1965 to 1975, a real live grandpa was a curiosity while grandmas and aunties abounded. I never knew my grandfathers. Bombs dropped from planes are not about to ask whether you have chosen a side in this war or just want to get home.

  6. The fun thing is some cultures practiced both bride price and dowry. In classical Greece, for instance, the groom paid up front at the betrothal; the more substantial dowry was paid when they were actually married.

    In Europe, the dower was called the morning gift, because the bridegroom would formally settle it on the bride the morning after the wedding night. That’s where we get morgantic marriages — unions where the bride and her children can’t inherit from the bridegroom and father, particularly his noble or royal title — the name coming from the way their inheritance consisted solely of the dower.

    In Britain, the common custom was the daughters of the very poor went into service to earn their own dowries. At that level, of course, a good dowry could easily mean the difference between life and death for her, her husband, and their children.

    • True, I should have said that bride price and dowry are not mutually exclusive. Especially when you figure that they may take the form of goods or assets other than money, it isn’t just a case of “I’ll give you $200 now and you give me $400 in a few months;” both families might walk away having gained something valuable.

  7. In some Asian cultures, the man joined the woman’s family. Was a dower of some kind paid to the family losing the work of the son? Anyone know? Was he adopted?

    I don’t know how many, if any, of those traditions/matriarchal cultures survive in the 21st century.

    • I know adoption was common in Japan when the marriage was being arranged specifically to provide the family with an heir: he’d marry their daughter and be adopted as a son. In those instances he inherited the estate of the family he was marrying into, because the setup wasn’t matriarchal, or even matrilineal — this was just a way of carrying on the patriline. I don’t think any kind of gift was given to his family in that case.

  8. I would imagine that, unless they eloped and ran off to a place where neither family had connections, any newly-wed couple who wanted to be neolocal would be setting up a new home on land owned by one of the two sides of the family. (is that still neolocal?)

    • In many cases the family didn’t own land: they were just renting as tenants, whether that was a farm or a few rooms in a city. But when the families did own property, some of it might be given to the son as an inheritance or the daughter as a dowry. There’s no clear cutoff for “you must be geographically this close to one side of the family for it to count as patrilocal/matrilocal” — it’s more of a gradient.